Monday, February 16, 2009

"Why Not Bring a Neanderthal Back to Life?"

John Tierney of the NYT (yes, I am going to have to come to grips with the fact that I like the science section of the Times but can't stand the rest of the paper) asks the question "Why Not Bring a Neanderthal Back to Life?" Time to drop the "h" in Neandertal, John. The Germans did that a century ago. Anyhoo, here is what he says:

Now that the Neanderthal genome has been reconstructed, my colleague Nicholas Wade reports, a leading genome researcher at Harvard says that a Neanderthal could be brought to life with present technology for about $30 million.

So why not do it? Why not give Harvard’s George Church the money he says could be used to resurrect a Neanderthal from DNA?

I’m bracing for a long list of objections from the world’s self-appointed keepers of bioethics, who must see this new Neanderthal issue as a research bonanza. Think of the conferences to plan, the books to publish, the donors to alarm! I can imagine an anti-Neanderthal alliance between the religious right and the religious left, like James Dobson and Jeremy Rifkin — what I like to call the holier-than-thou coalition opposed to new biological technologies.

Yes, John, there will be many, many objections. First, to what end? He continues:

But I’m afraid I can’t see the problem. If we discovered a small band of Neanderthals hidden somewhere, we’d do everything to keep them alive, just as we try to keep alive so many other endangered populations of humans and animals — including man-biting mosquitoes and man-eating polar bears. We’ve also spent lots of money reintroducing animals into ecosystems from which they had vanished. Shouldn’t be at least as solicitous to our fellow hominids?

Here's the problem that I see: Neandertals are also Homo sapiens, but extinct Homo sapiens. And everyone knows it. How would they be resurrected in a way in which they would not be treated as second-class citizens, if citizens at all? The old racial arguments would resurface in a way in which they have not done so for a century or more. Where would we put them? As Dave Frayer points out, there are no humans on the face of the planet that have the whole suite of Neandertal traits. They would be instantly recognizable.

Furthermore, what Tierney doesn't say is that in the places where we have reintroduced animals into environments in which they have vanished, it hasn't always worked. And where animals have been introduced where they weren't there to begin with, it has been disastrous. To be sure, this is not exactly Jurassic Park but, quite simply, there is a reason Neandertals didn't survive beyond 26 ky BP. The world changed, and they didn't change with it. Maybe there was hybridization between the Neandertals and the incoming moderns, maybe not, but Neandertals as they are defined between 100 and 26 ky ago, were outcompeted as a hominid and consigned to the dustbin of history. Lets leave them there.


  1. I thought neandertals were actually a distinct species. If so, the problem is not that they are human but close enough to human to require personhood status. In 50 years, we'll be facing the same problem with our machines.

  2. If he's not fudging the numbers then I'd say there's at least a 50% chance we'll see a ressurection of Neandertals in the next 25 years.

    I'm not as convinced as you are that there's no purpose to bringing the species back. After all, one could make similar arguments to counsel against antebellum slaves reproducing. I'm not positive that cloning Neandertals is, on net, a good idea. But I'm not positive that it's a bad idea, either.

  3. Don, there is a good deal of controversy surrounding whether or not Neandertals were a separate species or not. Some suggest that, due to the MtDNA studies, Neandertals did not interbreed with the incoming moderns. On the other hand, there is good reason to believe based on the archaeological data and the morphological data, that there was interbreeding between the two, in which case, where do you draw the line between them?

  4. AMW, the problem is that there are enough people out there who are, as Don notes, convinced that Neandertals were a separate species. In that case, you really do have a situation where they are human and yet not human (Homo sapiens neandertalensis). At least with slaves in the antebellum south, you could not genetically say that they were separate species. Even though there was nothing known about genetics, the slaves plainly looked human and the arguments against that were largely economic or based on no scientific studies. The same cannot be said for Neandertals. Cell ran a story a few years back with the huge headline "Neandertals are not our ancestors" based on an analysis of base-pair substitutions in the Neandertal genome as compared to the modern human genome. Well maybe or maybe not, but the public weight of opinion suggests that most people, even if they are aware of the issue, don't consider Neandertals as humans.